Wednesday, September 12, 2007

So, you didn't really ask for it, but here it is

I have finally put my UK trip down on paper. And for those of you who don't want to read the eight pages of details, I've put a little bulleted list at the top.

I don't know who would want to read the whole thing, but since this is pretty much my only journal these days, it's going here.

UK short post – quick observations
- For the best review of the city our office is in, check out this site. really really funny stuff.
- In my hotel where I stayed the first three nights, I only had one towel
- There was only one sheet on the bed in both the hotel and the apartment. A bottom sheet, then the blanket.
- No phone in the hotel room
- Five channels on the hotel tv
- Alarm clock in the tv
- In many places, I noticed that the public restrooms have floor to ceiling walls and doors (which I kind of liked).
- Visible tattoos on men seem more common.
- 20p (40 cents) for the privilege of using the subway bathroom
- £1 coins stink
- Skinny leg jeans have come back
- Constant breeze and dry air = chapped lips for two weeks
- Black leggings are very popular
- So is the Double Windsor tie knot with fat ties

The trip really was a wonderful time, even though I got pretty homesick while I was there. Luckily, I wasn’t alone the whole time, which helped enormously. A colleague was there for my first four and a half days, and he helped me figure out the area and the trains. Best of all, though, he was kind an patient enough to let me risk our lives, so that I could drive for a couple days under his watchful eye, before setting me loose on the people of Bracknell, Reading, and Windsor.

During our overlap, Bill and I went into Reading, London, and Windsor. The first trip was into Reading on a Friday night. It’s a neat town with a shopping district that straddles a canal/river. We went into Reading for a couple reasons. It’s the closest town to Bracknell with anything going on after 5pm, and, mainly, it has a Nandos. I wish I could describe the Nandos experience, but I really can’t. It’s delicious grilled chicken (whole, half, or quarter), seasoned with the Nandos peri peri sauce. Peri peri is a hot west African spice, and it’s delicious. I bought some of the sauce to bring home, and have since discovered that though there are no Nandos in the US, their sauces can be found at Cost Plus World Market. We have already bought more.

Bill also kindly walked through the shopping mall in Reading with me while I got baby clothes for my god daughter, and a few other trinkets.

Bill had gotten us tickets for the Arsenal/Paris St. Germain game at Emirates Stadium on Saturday, so we got up bright and early to head into London and get some sight-seeing done before kick-off. We went all over the place. We rode into Waterloo Station, and learned that this gargantuan building that you can see from the train (a better view can be had on the way into Victoria Station, actually) is the Battersea Power Station, and the same building with a giant pig balloon tied to it on Pink Flloyd's Animals album cover. It’s an art deco style plant built in the late 30s to provide power to London. It hasn’t been operational for decades, and has been the subject of several projects for art centers, and various other developments that haven’t happened. So, it sits empty, heaven for photographers.

This picture is the only one that illustrates the enormity of the building.

See those tiny little dots in the bottom right? Those are people.

We had a conversation with a young couple on the train who told us about that being the building on the Animals cover, and then they let us know about an art exhibit that was ending in August, and right around the corner from train station. It was at the Hayward Gallery, where Antony Gormley had an exhibition taking up several floors. There were two main parts of this exhibit. One was a collection of iron casts of himself that he spread all over the gallery, but also, on roofs all over London within 1.5 kilometers of the gallery. You can see them in some of my pictures on Flickr. The second and most eerie - Blind Light - was this glass room full of fog. Visitors, after the requisite warnings about claustrophobia, asthma, and disorientation, were encouraged to enter. Within three feet of walking in, you lose complete sense of where you or anyone else is. You can hear voices, but you can’t hear a thing. It’s very freaky, and I made my way straight back (with arms outstretched) to the far wall, and followed the walls around back to the front. I wasn’t completely freaked out because I knew I was safe, but it was disconcerting enough that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in that room.

He had several other installations, a couple really cool ones, too. The exhibit was all about the space our bodies take up in the world, and how we recognize our space. Usually, I roll my eyes at the descriptions of installation art, but this wasn’t a bunch of tin cans stacked up. These were mostly sculptures and other objects that I really did feel reflected exactly what the artist was going for.

Bill and I decided it was time to move on, so we headed out of the gallery towards the Thames, right at the London Eye. We didn’t ride it because we had a lot of places we wanted to go, but that’s where the Millennium Bridge is. We crossed the bridge into the Westminster area, with Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. This is where, much to Bill’s chagrin, Monkey came out. Monkey was photographed in front of Parliament, Big Ben, and a statue of Winston Churchill, and was unceremoniously deflated because, though London has its share of strange people, Bill and I are not strange enough to carry an inflated monkey around the London Underground.

From Westminster, we headed to Camden. The home of Doc Martens, The Clash (or so I hear), and just about the biggest market of international goods, alternative clothes, chotchkies, and food I have ever seen was a wonderful place. There was even a rave store called Cyberdog, where I got a little something for the Galarza, and a fantastic CD of techno/house music. The store had a dj spinning and a dancer (not a stripper) on a platform behind the counter.

I bought some goodies, including a cool jacket for myself, and we headed on to the game.

Bill had managed to get incredible seats on the 16th row, just a few yards towards the center line from the corner flag. Though it wasn’t an English Premier League game (the season hadn’t started), Arsenal is an EPL team, and it was by far the highest level of soccer I have ever watched. Monkey also came out for a few pictures in the stadium, too. We had met one of Bill’s friends and girlfriend for the game, and it was the friend's birthday. After the game, we went to dinner and then to a pub where we met a few other people and had a couple rounds of cider. Bill and I, both sunburned from the game and exhausted, with an hour’s train ride ahead of us, decided to head back to Bracknell. Surprise, I fell asleep on the train, and we were back “home” before I knew it.

On Sunday, Bill was going to the airport for a two-day trip into Amsterdam before heading home after more than a month in the UK, mostly alone, and always in the rain. He was more than ready. But we did have time to drive into Windsor for a quick look around. Ascot is between Bracknell and Windsor, so we drove by the track, which was kind of neat. I imagined British women in their racing best with their fancy hats and feathers.

We walked around Windsor, amazed an the way the town goes right up to the castle walls, with the river just below. It really did feel like a few simple changes to the dress of the people around, and removing the asphalt to expose the cobblestone undoubtedly beneath would take us right back into the way the castle and town were 200 years ago, or more. We headed out pretty quickly, so I could take Bill to the train (I wasn’t yet ready for a drive to the airport), but I turned around and went back into Windsor for some more wandering, and perhaps a tour of the castle. I did make it back in time. I managed to buy several gifts, eat lunch (an incredible sandwich of goat cheese and grilled vegetables), and then slide into a late tour. Windsor is said to be one of the Queen’s favorite castles where she spends a good bit of her personal time. I toured the official areas of the castle, where they have state dinners, receive visitors, and such. On the grounds of the castle is St. George’s Chapel. It was getting late in the afternoon, so I missed the last tour of the chapel, but I was able to attend the Sunday evensong service. Something I noticed the first time I was in England, and that held for this trip, too, is that it really does feel different sitting in these churches that have been around for hundreds of years. It is a weight that fills me when I walk into places like this and Westminster (probably the most reverent I have ever felt in my life). I believe in the notion that when people enter somewhere, they leave something of themselves in that place after they’ve gone – not just churches, even. But maybe because of the extreme emotions (joy, grief, and peace) that usually fill those in a church, there is more left in them than in other places (like hotels or even homes). I don’t know how else to describe or explain the feeling.

After leaving Windsor, I found out that not only is the Queen Mother buried in St. George’s, but so is Kind Henry VIII, and so are Edward IV, Henry VIII's favourite wife Jane Seymour, Charles I, George V and Queen Mary, George VI, and Princess Margaret. I would have loved to have seen their tombs.

From there, I headed back to my car, and drove to the apartment to settle in, and get something to eat. Oops, everything closes so early in England! They have late night shopping on Thursdays, though, until 8pm(!), but not on Sunday. Even the grocery stores close at 4:30 (or something like that), so I thought I was out of luck. But I was able to find Pizza Hut and get a small pizza to go, ordering about 10 minutes before they ran out of “bases” (dough). I headed back and settled in to get ready for the week ahead. I was there to work, after all.

Though I can’t remember exactly which day, my boss arrived shortly after Bill went home. He was there for a few days to meet with prospects and clients, and to help me interview some candidates. Other than the interviews, he spent the majority of his time in London. The coolest part, though, was when he spent Wednesday in the office, and asked me to get us a couple tickets to see Wicked that night. Buying these tickets so late for a weeknight show netted us seats on Row E, far right (facing the stage) section, right on the internal aisle. Similar to seeing a show on Broadway (rather than a touring who at home), the talent in the West End absolutely blew me away. And the show was fantastically clever and original. Russ can tell it better than I can, though, if you’d like to learn more.

On Thursday night, my boss and I had quite the adventure with me driving us the wrong way into Reading. We finally made it alright, and got our dinner at Nandos (only after sitting down, did he tell me he’s not really much of a chicken eater), and then wandered around the town a bit. After another adventure trying to get back to Bracknell (it’s really embarrassing getting lost and driving like a lunatic with your boss sitting in the car next to you), we finally made it, and I dropped him off at the hotel.

I took him to Heathrow on Friday morning, and was now on my own for a few days. All this time, though, there was at least a cool temp in the office to keep my company during the day. I was there at night, able to just go back to the apartment, cook dinner, watch tv, and do my own thing. I didn’t really fancy going out into Bracknell on my own at night, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as my colleagues and this hilariously cheeky website made it out to be. It’s just that there’s nothing going on there after 5pm. It’s just deserted. So, I was finally able to settle in a bit.

That weekend, though, I had already decided wouldn’t be another venture into London, but a trip northwest, instead, to Liverpool. And no, not because of The Beatles. I wanted to go see Anfield. I wanted to go see the locker room where Steven Gerrard, Pepe Reina, and so many legends have prepared for matches; the corridor to the pitch were the This is Anfield sign hangs as an inspiration to the home side and warning to the visitors; the pitch itself (partially artificial to reduce divots); and of course, the Kop. And I was able to see it all, and even sit in Rafa’s seat on the sidelines.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself because the tour was Sunday, and my trip began on Saturday. The trip to Liverpool from Bracknell isn’t a short one, and if you try to book a train from Bracknell, you’re in for a couple transfers. So I decided that I would take the train into London, change there, and then go straight to Liverpool. This gave me two-and-a-half hours to sit, look at scenery, and catch up on some reading. I also have myself a little extra time in London, so that I could wander around some more. I walked from Euston station to King’s Cross/St. Pancras station and back. There’s not much to see on that route, but sometimes it’s just fun to wander. And then I boarded the Virgin train to Liverpool.

I very much enjoyed riding the train, instead of driving. And I must admit that I do wish we could somehow make train service really work in the US. I would love to be able to ride a train to the Georgia football games, for instance. When I arrived in England a week before, they were at the tail end of record-setting rain (a month straight) and floods, The rain had tailed off by my third day, and it hadn’t rained since. The trip to Liverpool was by far the best weather I had in all my two weeks. It was sunny and warm, but never got hotter than about 77 degrees. After all that rain, the countryside was just a sea of varying greens, cut here and there by canals.

I arrived in Liverpool mid-afternoon, took a cab to the hotel to check in, then just started wandering around. I made my way to the center of town. People were everywhere, and the town center is a pedestrian zone with tons of shopping, restaurants, and clubs. I walked up the street to the club district to at least stroll by The Cavern. Though it’s closed and re-opened since, this is the club where The Beatles played when they were just getting started. I didn’t go in, but from the pictures, and for those of you familiar with Athens, it looks about the size of DT’s Downunder. Theme clubs are popular in England, with disco and 80s clubs dominating, but in Liverpool, I saw two 90s clubs. Can someone explain to me what the uniting club-inspiring theme of the 90s would be? Because, I honestly, can’t figure it out myself.

I headed back to the hotel to relax a bit, then asked about how to get to the restaurant that I had chosen, based on a customer’s recommendation – Alma de Cuba. It was a bit of a walk, but it took me right by the Mersey River, Albert Docks, and several very cool government and shipping buildings.

It took me a while to find the restaurant because I couldn’t find the street, but I found it, and realized immediately that I was underdressed. They also asked if I had a reservation. Though they told me I wasn’t underdressed, I asked about eating at the bar (the downstairs part of the restaurant), and they showed me in, but I quickly realized that I had just missed the tapas menu, and I really needed to eat real food. So I went back out, and asked if there was any way that I could have a table for one without a reservation. They did indeed have a spot (right outside the kitchen), but I didn’t mind because it gave me a great view of the place. Alma de Cuba is in a 200-year old converted church that they’ve left very much intact. The beams are still there, the stained glass windows, and the altar. It was pretty dark with low lighting, dark wood tables, and black leather chairs.

One look at the menu told me that this wasn’t just any restaurant, and I settled in for my meal. I have to say that it’s interesting eating alone in a restaurant like that because you get lots of care. I was taking notes on my wines and food, so I think they may have thought I was a restaurant critic or something. The manager came by and offered me copies of the menu, since I was trying to remember everything.

So, for what I ate. I started with a glass of white wine and the most amazing appetizer I’ve ever had – a goat cheese and cayenne soufflĂ©. It was warm with a thin crust, and delicious. Then I ordered my entrĂ©e of lamb medallions, and not noticing that it came with mashed potatoes and carrots, I ordered additional sides of mashed potatoes and spinach. Needless to say, when my food came, I felt like a complete pig. And I was. I finished everything, except the second order of potatoes. Apparently taking leftovers is unusual in the UK, they had to search the kitchen for something to put my potatoes in, and asked me to sign a form saying that I would heat the food appropriately when I decided to finish it. The to-go box was a very hefty and too large bit of plastic ware. I also had a glass of red wine with the lamb. For dessert, I ordered apple and blackberry crumble. Both the meal and service were fantastic, and with the exchange rate, this was the most expensive meal I’ve eaten on my own. At £51 (roughly $102.00), I think it may also have been the most expensive meal I’ve had as even my half of a fancy anniversary meal. Luckily, I had a pretty solid per diem on this trip, and had done well by buying groceries for my meals while I was in Bracknell. I waddled out of the restaurant and walked by to the hotel at twilight (late in the UK during the summer – about 9-9:30), and got ready for my tour of Anfield the next morning.

I got my jersey out, and was ready to catch a cab to the stadium at 9:30am. I’ve pretty much already described the tour, but I will add that our tour guide was a former ref, and a really funny guy all around. He picked on everyone – gave me a lot of grief over Monkey, whom he put on a trainer’s table for the tour of the locker room – and led a great tour.

I headed back to the hotel a bit late for check-out, ran up to get my bags, and headed towards the train station for my ride back. It was about the same as the day before, but I caught glimpses of a few things on the way back that I had missed on the first trip – including a huge white lion somehow either carved or planted into a hillside, and a nuclear (I think) power plant.

Then it was time to start work again the next day, so I headed back to the apartment. Something I loved about the cable there was the unbelievable number of music video channels – 30. There was all kinds of music, though, scarcely a guitar to be found in any of it. I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear guitar-based music on the radio when I got back home.

My last week was pretty uneventful, but I was excited because my reliever was coming in on Thursday. She was a colleague that I had never met in person, so when I went to pick her up at Heathrow, I was one of the people standing there with a sign. She found me, and we headed back to the office. Something I discovered that day about the signs in England, is that it seems great at first that they tell you what cities are in the direction of the exit or entrance you’re about to take from the highway. That’s all well and good until you’re heading to a town that’s not listed, and you have no idea where it is in relation to those towns that are listed. I can’t tell you why I could get back from Heathrow when I dropped my boss off, but couldn’t with my colleague in the car, but well, there it is. I knew we didn’t want to go towards London to get back to Bracknell, but none of the other signs mentioned Bracknell, or Slough, or Reading, or Windsor, or any of the towns I knew to be close to Bracknell. There were no signes for the highway I knew we needed to be on (except the sign to London), and while the mention of town names is great, there is no mention of cardinal direction on any of the signs. It’s like telling a stranger to Atlanta who wants to go to Alpharetta, that one entrance to I-85 goes to Peachtree City and the next one goes to Lilburn. So we drove until we finally had a chance to pull out the map, and found signs to Slough. It took us an extra 45 minutes, but we finally made it back to the office.

I had dinner plans with a friend who used to work at our distributor on Thursday night, and then Friday, I was going to show my colleague around. We decided that since we only had the two days overlap, that she should start driving pretty quickly. Friday night we went into Windsor, and so began the night that includes just about the most embarrassing five minutes of my life. We wandered around Windsor taking pictures and seeing the river, then decided to go to dinner at a burger place. It’s a place where you order your food at the counter and they bring it to your table. It’s all very close, with anyone along the same wall, sharing a long booth, two person tables that can be pushed together if your party is larger, and not much space. We quickly noticed a couple in their 40s or 50s that sat down a few minutes before us because the woman seemed to be asleep. Her head was forward, with her chin on her chest and then lolled back with her chin in the air and her mouth wide open. She wasn’t asleep. She was passed out. There was a bottle of wine on the table, half empty with two full glasses in front of them so they hadn’t had much to drink at the burger place. She had been drunk (or whatever) when they arrived. My colleague and I both noticed at about the same time, and proceeded to stare at this couple (very rudely, I admit; we were laughing at this point, too) and see if we could figure out what was going on.

When the woman’s head lolled back, she kind of ended up on her husband’s shoulder, and he shrugged her off, then went to pick up their food. She was clearly in no condition to eat, but he brought back two giant burgers, and woke her up. She started trying to eat, but couldn’t even keep her head or arms up. She was just kind of shoveling food into her face. I looked over again, and noticed that she had blue cheese dressing all over her face – from nose to chin and cheek to cheek. She was a mess. At this point, I start to wonder if something else is wrong with her – maybe she had taken some medication that didn’t react well with the wine or whatever she’d had to drink before – because it seemed different than drunkenness. But her husband seemed ambivalent.

Well, he was only ambivalent until my colleague accidentally made eye contact with him. She looked at me, terrified, and said, “Oh no, I just made eye contact.” Out of the corner of my eye, I see the man get up, and head over to our table about five feet away. He leans over us, putting his hands down to lean on the table, and proceeds to berate us for what seemed like forever, but was probably 3 minutes. He yells at us about how, yes, his wife is drunk, but that she’s drunk because she just found out that her father has cancer and only three months to live. He asks if we still have our fathers, do we know how it feels, etc. On and on. At first, we were completely mortified, looking down, and then up at him, and only saying, “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” and “we’re sorry, sir.” It was like we turned into two eight year-old girls who’d been busted doing something they shouldn’t have. After he went on and on, though, I started to get a bit frustrated at his repetition, and looked at him and simply said, “Honestly, I was starting to wonder if there’s not something wrong with her, if she’s ill or something,” He kept on for another minute or so, then just said that he would appreciate it if we would stop staring, to which we said, “yes, sir.” And he left.

By the time our food came, we had no appetite, and were struggling to suppress the nervous giggles, lest he think we were laughing at he and his wife again. Once we finally ate what we could, we left, and then came up with everything we should have said to him, because at this point, we no longer believed that his wife’s father was sick. Or, if he was, why in the world would this man bring his drunk wife to a very open and crowded burger joint to grieve? The theories became that his wife is an alcoholic and he was just mad that we were staring, so he came up with a story to make us feel bad. Or that his father-in-law really is dying, and this guy is just an insensitive prat who wanted a burger for dinner, in spite of his wife’s condition. Whatever the real story is, we were totally thrown for a loop the rest of the night, and it’s pretty much all we could talk about.

We then went to a club that someone in our office building had recommended, listened to 15 minutes of crappy dj-ing, tried to dance a bit, then went back to the apartment, so I could pack and be ready to go in the morning.

She took me to the train station the next day, and I was on my way home at last.


Bean said...

Wow, what a great trip! I can't believe you were actually brave enough to drive there! I would have been sooo confused and lost!

galarza said...

burger houses are awesome
techno is awesome
skinny leg jeans are awesome
"wicked" was awesome
inflatable monkeys are evil. >:(

and that reminds me, are you up for burger house anytime soon?? or sushi. either way is good with me.

Bill said...

What a monumental blog post. I would say I want my 45 minutes back, but I don't! That was a great read. Thanks for the shoutout.